Changing standards.

As a follow-up to this post, I realized that I neglected to mention another President who made use of appearing on entertainment television, or at least was not hurt by it: Ronald Reagan.

Sarah Palin herself made note of this fact, arguing against those who say it’s not Presidential to star in a reality show by noting that Reagan had been an actor, and had appeared in some not-especially-Presidential films.

Fair point, I suppose. And Reagan, like Palin and unlike Nixon, had charisma, which made it seem acceptable. (I have a theory that all actors, even lousy ones, have high levels of charisma compared to the general population.) There is, it seems, little which charisma cannot overcome.

On the other hand, Reagan quit working as an actor in 1965, 15 years before he became President. As Peggy Noonan writes as a rebuke to Palin:

“Ronald Reagan was an artist who willed himself into leadership as president of a major American labor union (Screen Actors Guild, seven terms, 1947-59.) He led that union successfully through major upheavals (the Hollywood communist wars, labor-management struggles); discovered and honed his ability to speak persuasively by talking to workers on the line at General Electric for eight years; was elected to and completed two full terms as governor of California; challenged and almost unseated an incumbent president of his own party; and went on to popularize modern conservative political philosophy without the help of a conservative infrastructure. Then he was elected president.”

These qualifications do seem rather more than Palin’s. (As an aside, it’s hard to imagine any artists-turned-union-leaders running for the Republicans nowadays.)

In the end, though, it goes back to the idea that our standards that have changed with time. Reagan was considered an intellectual lightweight in his day and age, as Palin is in the present day. Call me a pessimist if you like, but I believe this is due to a decline in what we expect of our politicians. If someone with Palin’s credentials had tried to run in Reagan’s time, imagine the reaction. P M Prescott‘s comment here says it very well: “The electorate is getting more and more into voting as fans of someone famous, even if it’s famous for being famous.”

And if Reagan’s charisma and celebrity overcame his relative lack of real policy credentials, then what is there to stop Palin’s charisma and celebrity from overcoming hers?

P.S. Incidentally, having read Noonan’s argument that Reagan’s time as SAG President helped him as a politician, I find that I cannot resist quoting these rather prescient lines of Ernest’s song “Were I a King” from Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Grand Duke:

“Oh, the man who can rule a theatrical crew,
Each member a genius (and some of them two),
And manage to humour them, little and great,
Can govern this tuppenny State!”

What's your stake in this, cowboy?